Conspiracy theorists say Doncaster cameras linked to 15 minute city plan
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City of Doncaster Council has installed a number of devices across the city’s key roads, junctions and roundabouts in recent days to help look at the impact of traffic across the city.
But some have claimed that the cameras are part of a plan to turn Doncaster into a ‘15 minute city,’ introduce clean air zones and ultra low emission zones and which they say would curtail people moving freely across Doncaster.
But the claims are totally unfounded and baseless – with Doncaster Don Valley Conservative MP Nick Fletcher even drawn into the argument, describing 15 minute cities as an “international socialist concept.”Doncaster Mayor Ros Jones has said she is against a clean air zone (CAZ) and accused Mr Fletcher of being ‘confused’ over the issue.
So just what is a 15 minute city and why have conspiracy theories abounded around them?
It is an urban planning concept where people live within walking or cycling distance of everything they need.
Paris-based urban planner Carlos Moreno discussed it during the UN climate conference COP21 in 2015, following years of research on optimising city living.
In the radius of a 15-minute walk or bike ride, the Panthéon-Sorbonne professor says, “people should be able to live the essence of what constitutes the urban experience: to access work, housing, food, health, education, culture and leisure.”
“It’s actually about freedom of choice,” UK cycling campaigner Tom Jones said.
“We’re saying we shouldn’t be building new housing where people then drive to buy a pint of milk, go to school or visit the doctor because there’s no shops, schools or surgeries close by.”
Traffic calming measures introduced in Oxford have become an unlikely flashpoint in the last few weeks, with some protesters claiming they will lead to a “climate lockdown.”
And according to investigations, an international network of established climate and COVID science deniers is pushing it.
The Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) scheme is a common strategy in the UK. LTNs cut the number of cars passing through residential streets by erecting barriers called ‘modal filters’. It’s been a feature of towns since the 1960s, but the pandemic catalysed their roll-out in London and other cities - including Oxford.
Oxfordshire County Council voted to make a few temporary LTNs permanent in July 2022 after consulting the public.
The council is proposing traffic filters because "the city has had awful congestion for decades," damaging the economy and environment, and making the bus network unviable.
In another bid to cut congestion, the county council is planning to trial a traffic filter scheme on six roads in the city next year. It will require cars to obtain permits in order to travel along these routes. Traffic cameras will be used to scan drivers’ number plates, and fine those without a permit (with numerous exemptions).
Separately, Oxford City Council endorsed the 15-minute city concept in its Local Plan 2040 published in September.
In December, social media posts started to falsely conflate the ideas, with some claiming that a surveillance system would be used to restrict people to within a 15-minute radius of their homes.
Councillors began receiving a torrent of abuse, leading to a joint statement from the county and city councils debunking the misinformation at the end of the year.
But by then the theories had taken on a life of their own.
As well as the convenience, safety and social arguments, there are clear environmental benefits to cutting down on car journeys including reducing air pollution and creating more room for nature.
But the pandemic has fuelled the ideas of climate sceptics who claimed COVID lockdowns were the precursor to ‘green tyranny’ from governments. They believe global elites are eager to constrain people under the pretext of climate change.
The 15-minute city concept got swept into this wider ‘climate lockdown’ trend, with conspiracy theorists presenting it as a communist plot to make people easier to control.
Last weekend, hundreds of people took to the streets of Oxford with banners such as ‘NO TO 15 MIN CITY | COMMUNISM | WE DO NOT CONSENT.” In one video shared thousands of times, a 12-year-old girl decries 15-minute neighbourhoods claiming they are “soon to become digital ID facial recognition zones.”
Don Valley MP Mr Fletcher appears to have been drawn into the conpsiracy theory, saying: “Whilst I am obviously in favour of the principle of making essential services closely available to people, I am fundamentally opposed to the principle of imposing penalties and restrictions on people’s way of life to compel them to use these services.
“I have noted what is being proposed elsewhere by local authorities and I don’t believe that this is what the vast majority of people want.
In a letter to Ros Jones he said: “I am pleased to note that Southend have listened to their residents and stated that they have permanently ruled it out for their area. I would ask that you follow their lead and do the same.
“I would ask you to commit to never raising fines penalties or charges for any vehicle entering any part of the Council’s area of jurisdiction and that no restrictions will be imposed on vehicle usage by my constituents? The Council should not have the right to tell anyone how often they can use their car and to fine them if they do.”
In response, Mayor Jones said: “I must point out that I think you have got confused in relation to Clean Air Zones (CAZ) and ULEZ.
“ULEZ is only in London and was announced by the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson, before being introduced in 2019.
“CAZ is what has been introduced in other authorities such as Bath, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Portsmouth, Sheffield and Tyneside.
“CAZ are introduced by authorities in order to meet Government directions to reach legally compliant annual average Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) levels. Specifically, requiring them to take action to address Nitrogen Dioxide emissions from road transport.
“I do not want to see a CAZ in Doncaster, but I must point you in the direction of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan that your government released back in 2021. In which one of its key headlines is increasing cycling and walking.
“We will deliver the Prime Minister’s bold vision for cycling and walking investing £2 billion over five years with the aim that half of all journeys in towns and cities will be cycled or walked by 2030”
She added: “Also quoted in your governments Decarbonisation Plan – “Millions more people are walking and cycling following COVID-19, and progress has already been made towards our target that active travel should make up at least half of all journeys in towns and cities by 2030.”
“Your concerns would be better pressed with your own party colleagues and the relevant ministers because what you are saying does not marry up with your own party and government.”
A spokesman said: “The temporary traffic cameras have been installed to collect traffic data such as traffic flows and journey times between junctions along the network.
"The information will be used to determine if improvements could be made to the highway network.
“The surveys will be undertaken Monday to Wednesday, with a cameras being removed from Thursday.”
But conspiracy theorists have described the cameras as “Big Brother” – and are part of turning Doncaster into a 15 minute city.
One said: “They are finding out where the high traffic areas are so they can make the upcoming ULEZ zones most profitable.”
Another said: “Ain't nobody telling me where I can and can't go, wake up folks for goodness sake!”
Another posted: “Big Brother is and has been coming for years. Get your wallet ready and your rights!”
“This is just another way of keeping us all under control,” said another. “They want it so you can’t go 15 minutes from your house and you will be fined if you do. Wake up people!”